“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel

One of the first decisions you have to make when you’re writing a novel or short story is which tense to use. There are only two viable options: past tense or present tense.*

Which tense should you choose for your novel?

How to choose the right tense for your novel: past tense vs. present tense

*Future tense is certainly technically possible, but it’s used so rarely in fiction we’re going to skip it here.

What’s the Difference Between Present and Past Tense?

In fiction, a story in past tense is about events that happened in the past. For example:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watched as his beloved house burned to the ground. With a blank face, he drove away.

Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away.

This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different? Which version do you prefer?

Past Tense vs Present Tense

Choose Between Past and Present Tense BEFORE You Start Writing Your Novel

New writers are notorious for switching back and forth between past and present tense within their books. It’s one of the most common mistake people make when they are writing fiction for the first time.

On top of that, I often talk to writers who are halfway finished with their first drafts, or even all the way finished, and are now questioning which tense they should be using.

Unfortunately, the more you’ve written of your novel, the harder it is to change tenses, and if you do end up deciding to change tenses, it can take many hours of hard work.

That’s why it’s so important to choose between past and present tense before you start writing your novel

With that in mind, make sure to save this guide, so you can have it as a resource when you begin your next novel.

Both Past Tense and Present Tense Are Fine

Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you’re writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can’t decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense.

There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels. One main reason is simply that it’s the convention. Reading stories in past tense is so normal that reading present tense narratives can feel jarring and annoying to many readers. Some readers, in fact, won’t read past the few pages if your book is in present tense.

That being said, from a technical perspective, present tense is perfectly acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with it, even if it does annoy some readers. It has been used in fiction for hundreds of years, and there’s no reason you can’t use it if you want to.

Keep in mind, there are drawbacks though.

The Hunger Games and Other Examples of Present Tense Novels

I was talking with a writer friend today who used to have strong feelings against present tense. If she saw the author using it in the first paragraph of a novel, she would often put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

Then, she read The Hunger Games, one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with All the Light We Cannot See), and when she realized well into the book that the novel was in present tense, all those negative opinions about it were turned on their heads.

Many of the biggest present-tense opponents (like Philip Pullman) use caveats like this. Some of them even blame The Hunger Games for later, less well-written present tense novels. “Hunger Games was fine,” they say, “but now every other novel is in present tense.”

However, the reality is that it has a long tradition. Here are a several notable examples of present tense novels:

Present Tense Novels: The Bleak House by Charles DickensThe Bleak House by Charles Dickens

While present tense was frequently used as an aside from the author to the reader before this, Charles Dickens’ novel The Bleak House, first published in serial form in 1852, is the first novel that could find written mostly in it. The story is narrated in third-person present tense, but it also includes sections narrated by one of the main characters in the past tense.

Present Tense Novels: Run, Rabbit Run by John UpdikeRabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run was John Updike’s second novel. Now a classic of American literature, it surprised readers with its use of present tense. Updike said he used it intentionally because it was the perfect fit for his jumpy, unstable protagonist.

Rabbit, Run is sometimes praised for being the first book to be written entirely in present tense. But while it may have been the first prominent American novel in present tense, it was hardly the first in the world.

Present Tense Novels: Ulysses by James JoyceUlysses by James Joyce

James Joyce, the great Irish novelist, has a reputation for literary experimentation, and his novel Ulysses was one of the first to be written entirely in present tense. Ulysses was first published serially in 1918.

Present Tense Novels: All Quiet on the Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

This 1929 novel about World War I uses present tense to give a heightened visualization of the horrors of war.

Present Tense Novels: Fight Club by Chuck PalahniukFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

“This is your life and it’s ending one moment at a time.”

Like several of Chuck’s novels, Fight Club, published in 1999, is written in present tense.

Present Tense Novels: Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerneyBright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City is notable both for being written in present tense and second-person. While it’s not necessarily something you should use as an example in your own writing, it is an interesting case.

Other Notable Novels

Here are several other notable present tense novels

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman (I’m reading this right now, and it’s great!)
  • The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (the basis for the BBC TV Series)
  • Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
  • Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

There are dozens of other notable and bestselling novels written in present tense. However, comic books are another example of popular present-tense writing, which use dialogue bubbles and descriptions almost universally in present tense.

5 Advantages of Present Tense

Present tense, like past tense, has its benefits and drawbacks. Here are five reasons why you might choose to use it in your writing:

1. Present Tense Feels Like a Movie

One reason authors have used present tense more often in the last century is that it feels most film-like.

Perhaps writers think they can get their book adapted into a movie easier if they use present tense, or perhaps they just want to mimic the action and suspense found in film, but whether film is the inspiration or the goal, its increasing use owes much to film.

John Updike himself credits film for his use of present tense, as he said in his interview with the Paris Review:

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, ‘A Movie.’ The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration…. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

Christopher Bram, author of Father of Frankenstein, says much the same, “I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays.”

2. Present Tense Intensifies the Emotions

Present tense gives the reader a feeling like, “We are all in this together.” Since the reader knows only as much as the narrator does, it can draw the reader more deeply into the suspense of the story, heightening the emotion.

3. Present Tense Works Well With Deep Point of View

Deep point of view, or deep POV, is a style of narrative popular right now in which the third person point of view is deeply embedded into the consciousness of the character.

Deep POV is like first person narrative, and has a similar level of closeness, but it’s written in third person. By some accounts, deep POV accounts for fifty percent of adult novels and seventy percent of YA novels.

Present tense pairs especially well with a deep point of view because both serve to bring the narrative closer to the reader.

4. Present Tense Works Best In Short-Time-Frame Stories With Constant Action

Present tense works well in stories told in a very short time frame—twenty-four hours, for example—because everything is told in real time, and it’s difficult to make too many transitions and jumps in time.

5. Present Tense Lends Itself Well To Unreliable Narrators

Since the narrative is so close to the action in present tense stories, it lends well to unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who tells a story incorrectly or leaves out key details. It’s a fun technique because the reader naturally develops a closeness with the narrator, so when you find out they’re secretly a monster, for example, it creates a big dramatic reversal.

Since present tense draws you even closer to the narrator, it makes that reversal even more dramatic.

5 Drawbacks of Present Tense

As useful as present tense can be in the right situation, there are reasons to avoid it. Here are five reasons to choose past tense over present tense:

1. Some Readers Hate Present Tense

The main reason to avoid present tense, in my opinion, is that some people hate it. Philip Pullman, the bestselling author of the Golden Compass series, says:

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

Writer beware: right or wrong, if you write in present tense, some people will throw your book down in disgust. Past tense is a much safer choice.

2. Present Tense Less Flexible, Time Shifts Can Be Awkward

The disadvantage of present tense is that since you’re so focused on into events as they happen, it can be hard to disengage from the ever-pressing moment and shift to events in the future or past.

Pullman continues:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

Since you’re locked into the present, you’re limited in your ability to move through time freely. For more flexibility when it comes to navigating time, choose past tense.

3. Present Tense Harder to Pull Off

Since present tense is so much less flexible that past tense, it’s much more difficult to use it well. As Editorial Ass. says:

Let me say that present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.

Elibeth McCraken continues this theme:

I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist. But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time.

If you’re new to writing fiction, or if you’re looking for an easier tense to manage, choose past tense.

4. No or Little Narration

While present tense does indeed mimic film, that can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Writers have many more narrative tricks available to them than filmmakers. Writers can enter the heads of their characters, jump freely through time, speak directly to the reader, and more. However, present tense removes many of those options out of your bag of tricks. As Emma Darwin says:

The thing is, though, that film can’t narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action.

To get the widest range of options in your narrative, use past tense.

5. Present Tense Is More Limited

As Writer’s Digest says, with present tense you only have access to four verb tenses, simple present, present progressing, simple future, and occasionally simple past. However, with past tense, you have access to all twelve verb tenses English contains.

In other words, you limit yourself to one-third of your choices if you use present tense.

How to Combine Present and Past Tense Correctly

While you should be very careful about switching tenses within the narrative, there is one situation in which present tense can be combined within a novel:

Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term from theater that describes when an actor or actors address the audience directly. A good example of this is from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

As with theater, novels have broken the fourth wall for hundreds of years, addressing the reader directly and doing so in present tense.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

A great example of breaking the wall is from Midnight’s Children, the Best of the Bookers winning novel by Salman Rushdie, in which Saleem narrates from the present tense, speaking directly to the reader, but describes events that happened in the past, sometimes more than a hundred years before.

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.
― Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, also uses this technique of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. Here’s a quote from the novel:

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Which Tense is Right For Your Book, Past Tense or Present Tense?

As you can see present tense has its advantages and disadvantages.

If you’re writing a film-like, deep POV novel with an unreliable narrator in which the story takes place in just few days, present tense could be a perfect choice.

On the other hand, if your story takes place over several years, follows many point of view characters, and places a greater emphasis on narration, past tense is almost certainly your best bet.

Whatever you do, though, DON’T change tenses within your novel (unless you’re breaking the fourth wall).

How about you? Which tense do you prefer, past or present tense? Why? Let us know in the comments section.

More Present and Past Tense Resources:

PRACTICE

Practice writing in both present and past tense.

Write a scene about a young man or woman walking through London. First, spend ten minutes writing your scene in present tense. Then, spend ten minutes rewriting your scene in past tense.

When your time is up, post your practice in both tenses in the comments section.

Happy writing!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Ashley Renee Dufield

    This is interesting because I’ve found that over the years my natural writing style has shifted from writing in past tense to writing in present tense and I’ve been looking at a piece for a while where I’ve been on the fence about rewriting it in past tense but after reading this I might keep it as is because I have a very unreliable narrator. I’ve found this to be extremely helpful, thanks.

    • Awesome. Glad you found this helpful, Ashley. Good luck with your piece!

  • Very helpful advice. I was wondering about my middle-grade novel. Could I break the fourth wall in it? It would seem a wonderful thing to try.

    • Davidh Digman

      If by ‘middle-grade’ you mean children’s, I think children’s and young adult fiction is very open to fourth wall smashing!

    • Sure!

  • manilamac

    Though the mass of my fiction is past tense 3rd-person omni, I *do* break the 4th wall sometimes. I just can’t help myself…in a lifetime in music, theatre & dance, I know its power & frankly lust after it in writing. (But one thing those other fields of art taught me was that too much through-the-wall action and loss of control is almost inevitable.)
    Attempting to remain judicious, I don’t break the wall very often, but sometimes–especially in action scenes–and most especially in action scenes where I’m holding the focus on one out of a number of deeply developed characters, breaking that 4th wall–say, for a mere portion of a single scene–can really do the job!

    • Great points, Manilamac. We need to do a whole post on the 4th wall, but you’ve said everything I think!

  • Sarkis Antikajian

    He was not a Londoner or even a British national. He walked
    the streets of London in January dressed in bright color sleeveless shirt and
    sandals. People around him who carried umbrellas and wore suits and leather
    shoes saw him as a strange character who lost his way in the big city.

    He is not a Londoner, or even a British national. He walks
    the streets of London in January wearing wild color sleeveless shirt but acts
    like he belongs in the big city. People look at him amused by what they see—a
    young man who needs help.

    • Davidh Digman

      Past tense gave this a very different feel to present tense.

      The present tense gives this a feel that differs markedly from the past.

      • Agreed! Also, I see what you did there, Davidh. 😉

  • Dorryce Smelts

    Hello! I love this blog, but you have mis-cited John Updike’s seminal book Rabbit, Run several times. Can you fix this please?

    • Thanks Dorryce. What do you mean miscited?

    • Oh my gosh! How funny. I read that novel and loved it, have read a lot about it, and have thought about it for years, and this whole time I thought it was called Run, Rabbit Run, not Rabbit, Run. It’s amazing how your brain can edit things. Thanks Dorryce. Fixed!

      • Aoife Keegan

        Heheheh- my mind automatically changed it to “Run, Rabbit, Run” too! I think it must have confused it with Forrest Gump… 😮

  • S.Ramalingam

    The term story itself suggests that we write about something that happened in the past.The past tense always fits the bill when you narrate a story of the past.But when you write a how to article, the present tense is always the best and again the content of a how to article definitely is not a story but something that directs somebody to do something.Even Salman Rushdie in his MIdnight Children chose the past tense to narrate his story.Thats what H.G.Wells did in his Time Machine.

    • I disagree, S. Have you ever told a story to a friend or colleague in present tense? I certainly have! “So I’m walking through the house and it’s pitch dark and then you know what I see… a giant mouse!”

      • S.Ramalingam

        The question is which tense is right for your novel, but not whether you can write a novel in the present tense.In my humble opinion, when you narrate a story of the past, the past tense is most appropriate and when you narrate what is happening now, I mean in the story, the present tense is appropriate.Again, the tense is determined by the content.For example if I write a story of the preindependant era in India, the past tense is a must and more appropriate.

        • Unfortunately, a long tradition of well respected novelists disagree with you, including Erich Remarch, who wrote about a historical event, WWI, well after the events. It might indeed be more appropriate by some measures to write about historical events, like preindependent India, in the present tense, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be artistically effective and technically possible if done well.

          • S.Ramalingam

            Our mental predilictions should not, of course, will not determine the right tense required for writing a novel, but certainly it is the content or the subject matter that determines it.

  • Davidh Digman

    Fascinating article, but I do have some reservations.

    Firstly, let me quote from your article: “While you should be very careful about switching tenses within the narrative, there is one situation in which present tense can be combined within a novel:
    Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term from theater that describes when an actor or actors address the audience directly….”

    What about occasions in a present tense story in which your characters engage in reminiscences? How else can they do that but shift to the past tense? This is what is meant by ‘past within present’.

    Secondly, I have also recently read a piece (written by a colleague) wherein the tense changes from scene-to-scene. One of the characters thinks and acts in the present, working to reform himself. The other character is dominated by resentments and focussed upon the past. This piece worked extremely well and was a great device for conveying the differences between the characters.

    In my own work-in-progress, I have my regret-burdened starship Captain protagonist (and the bulk of the narrative) working in the past tense, whilst her living-in-the-moment AI friend operates entirely in the present tense.

    I think tense can be made to shift effectively from one to the other, but only if done with great care and purpose.

    I do not buy the notion that all tense shifts are Verboten.

    • Good question, Davidh. Yes, for flashbacks, you can absolutely use past tense. Just keep in mind, your character is still in the present, even if his/her consciousness is elsewhere. So you have to be careful to make sure the recollections he/she is having are natural, not forced by the story. Otherwise, you’re in danger of info dumping.

      Regarding tense changes scene-to-scene, there are some novels that do that. Bleak House, which I mentioned, is one example. It’s hard to pull off, and can be jarring to some readers, though—just as switching POV characters can be jarring to some readers. It’s likely that few mass market, bestselling novels will be written this way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible!

      Agreed! What can’t be done is careless tense shifts within a chapter (apart from flashbacks or asides, as you mention). Good thoughts, Davidh!

  • kbd

    http://www.amazon.com/Highways-Teresa-Marie-ebook/dp/B01A766HU8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1452047950&sr=1-1&keywords=Highways
    Hello everybody,
    I was inspired by Joe to finish my suspense thriller during NaNoWriMo 2015 and … tada! Thanks, Joe.
    I’d really appreciate any reviews or comments as I need the feedback. 🙂
    I’m in your writing community too, so I’ll post a link there.
    All the best. K.

    • Wow, congratulations K! That’s a huge accomplishment. And now are you working on the next? 🙂

  • I’ve never tried writing in present tense, an to be honest have always found it distracting. Most of the books I read to my kids are written that way, and (as sad as it may seem) I usually translate to past tense when I read out loud.

    • Ha! Cheater! Although, I can’t really talk. I sometimes skip pages if the story is really long!

  • I did it once & I must say I did it successfully (despite many advising against writing this way). But I am currently writing the prequel. And I think there will be a prequel to the prequel. Do they all have to be written in the same tense?
    What about the POV? My debut novel is mostly in 3rd person POV. Do I need to do the same for all the books in this series?
    Sherrie

    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

    • Interesting question! Yes, I think it’s best to choose the same tense. Hunger Games is all in the same tense. It’s a bit different, since it’s a prequel, though. I’d definitely recommend keeping the same POV though.

  • I’m determined

    John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. He watches as flames lick out of the window of his trophy room. Images of his Star Wars figures flash across his
    mind, he and his nephew battling with the evil Emperor. Before the roof could
    fall in, he reaches out, turns the key in the ignition. With a blank face, he drives
    away.

    • Nice, determined. Where’s the past tense version?

  • I’m determined

    I came, I saw, I conquered. Caesar insisting on his competence to do just that, even before he lands. His (arrogant) self confidence, if you will. An example of thinking positive in the extreme.

  • DiyaSaini

    Present
    Walking in the deep, deserted, dark streets of London, where no soul was visible. Quietness was being intruded by coughing of a young man, chugging on his pipe. A lamppost seems to signal him to halt, where he stood leaning against the wall. Timelessly keeping a watch over his watch, waiting for some known or unknown. Every passing shadow lit a light of hope in his eyes, which the street lights also could not hide. Suddenly from nowhere a hand touched his back, making him numb with tears rolling his eyes. Turning seemed difficult for him at this time, even more than moving a rock. The touch & warmth, the breathing by his side was his younger brother, who he thought was not alive….

    Past
    Deep, deserted, dark streets of London, where visibility of any soul was low, had seen a young man chugging on his pipe. His coughing had echoed to the highest point reaching to the deepest point in rebound. Lampposts dancing to the moonlight was left incomplete, due to the presence of this unknown. A bricked wall had lend his shoulder to him, where he ceaselessly kept a count over time. Shadows passed making his expressions grow more intense with time. Lamppost played a role of a spotlight, leading one aching soul to bond with another. A touch on his back was all what he groped, which melted him like an ice. He knew it was his younger brother, who he thought was never alive….

    • This is so evocative, Diya. I’m not sure “was being” works in the present tense, or “stood.” Should be “Quietness is” and “stands.” There are sever other mistakes in tense. Might be worthwhile to go back through and get clear on them. The past tense has a few issues as well, “knew it was his younger brother” should be “had known.” This piece is very dark and mysterious, though!

  • LilianGardner

    Thanks Joe, for this complete guide for writing in present or past tense. You’ve cleared up my doubts and I’m relieved that I have chosen to write my novel it in the past tense.
    I find it is easier to write in the past tense. I recently read a book written in the present tense and admire the author for her splendid novel. I’d love to imitate her but i dare not because I’d unconciously change the tense some place and not notice it. Better leave present tense alone. Past tense is okay for me.

    • I’m so glad this helped you realize you made the right choice for your novel. What was the book you finished that was in present tense?

      • LilianGardner

        The book I finished reading and enjoyed is titled ‘The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

        • I’ve heard of that, Lilian. It looks good!

  • Dan de Angeli

    Great Post. Here are is the exercise followed by a comment

    Funny how life gives you these unexpected moments, as if to say, see? If you weren’t such a controlling, over scheduled sod you might actually enjoy life a little more. Don is just killing time in Piccadilly Circus, itself a kind of accident since his rental car wouldn’t be available till 5PM. Bloody hell, he said like a true Englishman, which he’s not. But it turns out to be kind of unforseen blessing. For there he is, browsing in a bookstore in Piccadilly, just that phrase seems to conjure such possibility, that he meets Angela. It must look to her as though he is hitting on her, chatting her up as they say in England, but he really did want to drink a coffee. And now, here they are in Starbucks, and the whole moment is starting to feel very datey to him.

    Funny how life gives you these unexpected moments, as if to say, see? If you weren’t such a controlling, over scheduled sod you might actually enjoy life a little more. Don was just killing time in Piccadilly Circus, itself a kind of accident since his rental car wouldn’t be available till 5PM. Bloody hell, he said like a true Englishman, which he’s not. But it turned out to be kind of unforseen blessing. For there he was, browsing in a bookstore in Piccadilly, just that phrase seems to conjure such possibility, that he met Angela. It must have looked to her as though he was hitting on her, chatting her up as they say in England, but he really did want to drink a coffee. Then off they went to Starbucks, and the afternoon started to feel very datey to him.

    I started my memoir in the present tense months ago, mostly because I liked the sound of it and was inspired by Michael Ian Black’s memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right. It is tricky to maintain the voice throughout, and sometimes I would unconsciously slip back into the past voice.

    A good example is my chapter call A Social Dis-ease posted on the daily writing section of this site. (http://thewritepractice.com/community/daily-writing/a-social-dis-ease-revision-of-earlier-posted-from-wdtath/)

    When I need to fill in the back story a bit, I switch back to the past. So far I have seen no reason to not continue, though I recently started a short story all in the past and it seems to be a lot easier to write somehow.

    Dan de Angeli

    • I love the tone of this, Dan. Wry and critical. Very fun. Tenses look great! Funny how the first two lines are both in different tenses and yet remain, correctly, the same in both.

  • Ash

    This was a very interesting post! However, again, I have to offer a critique: apostrophes can be evil when they’re used in wrong places (its vs it’s, writers vs writer’s).

    • Thanks Ash! Evil, perhaps not, but incorrect, definitely. I’ve fixed them. Thank you!

  • Christine

    As I walk I’m careful where I put my feet, not wanting to step in some trash or trip over some litter, perhaps a child’s broken toy left lying. Now and then I stop to study the buildings around me, the tenement row houses and run-down apartment blocks. Cramped quarters where you try hard to shut your ears, not wanting to know about the shouts, cries, maybe even screams of your neighbours. Maybe hoping that it’s at least not the children getting the beating. But you tune it all out. You have enough problems of your own.

    Snatches of conversation I’m hearing tell me a lot of immigrants are starting out life in Britain right here on these streets. How do they feel now about the Promised Land?

    A gust of wind blows at my skirt and I smooth it down, trying to stay decently covered. Three black-haired, black eyed young men in a huddle look my way; one of them whistles. As I pass by they look me over, curious. I cringe a bit, then give myself a mental shake and straighten my shoulders. I’m not some teenage runaway; I have business here.

    How did she end up on these streets? And why am I here, trying to find her? This is madness. Again I pray for a miracle: If she’d only somehow materialize in front of me, or I’d glimpse her down the block.

    When I get to the street corner my eyes scan the sign posts, willing “Faust Street” to appear on one of them. Next time I’m taking a cab right to the door. No, I correct myself. There won’t be a next time. Ever.

    Surely it can’t be much farther. I plod on, conscious that the daylight’s disappearing. I glance up into the murky sky and realize the fog is rolling in. What would it be like to be caught wandering these East End streets in a pea soup fog. My mind flips to the story of Jack the Ripper. I force myself to concentrate on my flower garden at home.

    A man approaches, walking toward me, and something makes me look in his face. It’s not the scars that startle me, but the look in his eyes. Like a wolf sizing up a silly ewe. And I’m seeing myself very fitted to the role of lamb kebab.

    At this moment finding her seems not half as important as it did an hour ago. All my being is crying to be out of this place, off these streets.

    The man is so close to me now I can smell the stale tobacco on his clothes. He stops and eyes me too thoroughly. He seems to think he knows what I’m doing here. Well I’m not, mister! I take a several steps back.

    “Where ye going’ lady? He reaches out his hand, gripping my arm with powerful fingers. I’d like ta get ta know ye.” He pulls me toward him.

    Half a block behind him I see a bobby step out of a shop and look in our direction. Thank God!

    I won’t replay this in third person. If I did, it would read much the same — except that I could describe the MC as she walked along. Now I’m just giving the indication that she’s female and of an age to attract male attention.

    • I commented on your website, Christine, but I enjoyed your writing very much in this piece. Good job!

      • Christine

        Thanks. I love writing opening scenes. But…um… what should come next. Should she find her or shouldn’t she? This is probably why I haven’t written a literary novel yet. 😉

        • I don’t know. I would start from scratch on that. What I like most is the setting and, especially, the character’s voice.

          • Christine

            Thanks again. You’ve set the wheels turning; I’m going to give this serious thought. If the city street can be anywhere…and the search can be for anyone… The voice I can do.

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  • Thank YOU for reading LaCresha. Best!

  • DiyaSaini

    Thanks for your feedback Joe…I know I’m far from being perfect, but such kind of light always makes the try worthwhile. I did feel present tense made me restricted, where past was easier though.

    • Interesting observation, Diya. Thank you for giving it a try! 🙂

  • It’s also important to note that present tense leaves a lot of mystery about the future and makes it so that anyone can die, even the main character. Where as in past tense first person (I did this. I did that.) We usually know the main character will survive because they have to live to tell the story. Of course, this can be worked around with past tense paired with an omnipotent narrator (They did this. They did that.)

    I personally have no preference in reading but I notice that I always write in past tense. I guess it just makes more sense in my brain that an event would be recorded after the even happens, not as it is happening.

    A London scene? Oh, goodness. I’ll give it my best shot.

    • Great point, Katherine! Yes past tense 1st person novels make it very difficult to kill your character! Still possible, of course, since many stories are narrated by ghosts or even letters left behind, but still… it’s rarer.

      • Yes, I’ve read a few present tense first persons that killed of their character, but I really do feel like it’s cheating. Those endings always make me angry for some reason, unless of course we already know that they’re a ghost though the story.

  • This was really helpful. I always tend to prefer the past tense over the perfect, but have noticed that more and more books seem to be venturing into the present tense. Perhaps, as you say, it is because it is like the movies.

    • Glad you found it helpful, Tanya. Do you have any present tense novels you have enjoyed?

      • All the light We Cannot See – but that is such an exceptional book in so many ways. The sentences are short and punchy like a blog post, but it’s superb writing because of the poetry – the choice of verbs is extraordinary.

        • Isn’t it great? Glad you’re enjoying it, Tanya. 🙂

  • I really like what Elizabeth McCracken says about present tense – that ‘a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense’.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece, Joe. So much to unpack here. Have shared it.

    • Great quote, Bridget. I really like that. Thank you for sharing it. And for sharing our article!

  • I don’t think you can blame articles on that, Martin. It’s so normal to drift between tenses. I read a lot of first drafts and I can tell you, switching tenses is the one of the most common mistakes I see.

    I also am not saying this decision is easy. It’s not really supposed to be easy. But it IS important, otherwise I wouldn’t have devoted 2,700+ words to helping you figure it out. Honestly, it sounds like you need to spend some time alone thinking about which tense is best for your novel. And then stick to it. No one can make the decision for you, but you do have to decide.

    Let me know if I can help.

  • Sana Damani

    I tried writing a story in the present tense for the first time after reading this article, and I found that I kept accidentally switching back to past tense and had to go back and correct myself several times. That’s probably because I am so familiar with stories told in the past tense that it feels like the default sense to me.

    I believe I agree with the sentiment that “Present Tense Intensifies the Emotions”. It seems to provide a sort of immediacy with the emotional changes that a character undergoes because they aren’t telling us something that happened a long time ago, with embellishments and with the foresight of what happens next. Instead, you get to experience what happens to them as it happens, making the narration rawer and possibly more surprising.

    Here’s my attempt: http://loonytales.blogspot.com/2016/01/beautiful.html

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  • Catalina J. Tyner

    How is “The Hunger Games” well written present tense? Just look at the first sentence: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” This is exactly what Pullman is talking about. The author thinks it means “When I woke up, the other side of the bed was cold.” but it actually means “Usually (or sometimes, or always) when I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” You can’t just find/replace the tenses, you have to think about their usual use. This could’ve been fixed by a simple “I awake and realize the other side of the bed is cold.” if only the author knew what she was doing. One of the reasons I couldn’t get through the book was that I couldn’t tell most of the time whether Catniss was coming or going. I couldn’t tell if she was planning to pick up the bow, was picking up the bow, had already picked up the bow… Finally I got tired of trying to figure out what the author actually intended it to mean and switched to a novel where the author was clear, precise and unambiguous.

    • Sorry you didn’t enjoy it, Catalina. Perhaps present tense is an acquired taste. You should try Rabbit, Run next!

  • David McLoughlin Tasker

    Very enlightening and an invitation to read some great novels. Do you have a piece on past tense that is as detailed?

    • Not currently, David, although we may update this article in the future. Thank you for reading!

  • Joseph Alexander

    But when you write a how to article, the present tense is always the best and again the content of a how to article definitely is not a story but something that directs somebody to do something.Snapback Caps

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